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Donor Support Helps Reel in Research Money for U of A

Holders of endowed faculty positions use financial backing to secure grants.
FAYETTEVILLE, AR (News release) - Alan Mantooth is building equipment intended to mitigate power blackouts. Min Zou has found a way to make machinery operate more efficiently. Frank Millett leads a protein research center that is focused on improving human health.

Mantooth, Zou and Millett are among the 149 faculty members at the University of Arkansas who hold endowed positions. That means their research is supported by private donations in addition to public research grants.

Donor support to the university, especially the Campaign for the Twenty-First Century, which brought in $1.046 billion to the state’s flagship university, has resulted in nearly 150 endowed chairs and professorships spread across campus. Income from an endowed position can supplement the holder’s salary and provide money for equipment, scholarly research, travel and graduate assistants’ salaries. 

Jim Rankin, vice provost for research and economic development, said the earnings from the private endowments that support the chairs and professorships provide excellent return on investment.

“Having endowed chairs and professorships allows the University of Arkansas to retain and attract high-quality faculty members,” Rankin said. “Many of those position holders are securing hundreds of thousands — and in some cases, millions — of federal research dollars. The increase in the number of endowed faculty positions on campus over the last decade is reflected by the strides the institution is making in its goal to become a top 50 public research university.”

In 2006, Mantooth was named the Twenty-First Century Chair in Mixed-Signal Integrated Circuit Design and Computer-Aided Design. The chair was endowed with $1.5 million through the historic $300 million gift from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation to the university in 2002.

Mantooth has since been promoted to the rank of Distinguished Professor of electrical engineering. He receives about $65,000 annually in endowment earnings from the chair, and he devotes half of that amount to hiring graduate students and postdoctoral research associates. He directs three centers at the university that research power electronics and power systems related to electric power transmission, the nation’s electrical grid and energy research. 

In the last five years, he has been the principal investigator on research grants totaling $10.4 million, including a National Science Foundation EPScoR grant for $6.6 million and other NSF grants totaling $1.6 million.

Holding an endowed chair “is a mark of prestige,” said Mantooth, adding that his research operation spent $2.1 million in the last fiscal year.

“I employ five full-time staff members and 25 graduate students,” he said. “My research has supported three other staff members almost full-time at the university’s High Density Electronics Center for the last three years. All of these people spend their money here in Arkansas, so I’d say that is a pretty substantial impact economically.”

Zou joined the College of Engineering faculty in 2003 after working in the research and development division of a computer hard drive company. She was appointed to the Twenty-First Century Professorship in Mechanical Engineering in 2009, which was endowed with $500,000 by the 2002 Walton gift.

“The professorship has generated about $24,000 in recent years, and I use much of the professorship funding to purchase equipment and generate preliminary data for future proposals,” Zou said. 

Zou has parlayed that data into two patents and $2 million in federal grants in the last five years. She has developed an active research program in the interdisciplinary areas of nano-surface-engineering, nanotribology and nanomechanics.

Millett, a Distinguished Professor of chemistry and biochemistry, was appointed to the Bruker Analytical Science Professorship in 2011, which was endowed with $750,000 through a donation of sophisticated mass-spectrometry equipment by Bruker Daltonics and matched by the Walton gift. He directs the Center for Protein Structure and Function in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. The center is conducting numerous biomedical research projects important to human health, including the development of new methods to treat osteoporosis, hepatitis C, the flu virus, cancer, and heart disease.

Millett has been continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health since he came to the university in 1972, and in the last five years he has been the principle investigator on grants totaling $11.6 million, including a $5.4 million award from the NIH’s Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence program.

“The professorship has a budget of about $30,000 a year, which I use to support graduate students,” he said. “The support of the professorship is very important, because it allows my students and me to do exploratory research that will hopefully serve as the basis for a new federal research grant.”
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